Search form

'Inspired 3D Character Animation': Posing and Staging

This excerpt from Kyle Clarks Inspired 3D Character Animation explores how to convey emotion through posing and staging.

All images from Inspired 3D Character Animation by Kyle Clark, series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford. Reprinted with permission.

This is the next in a number of adaptations from the new Inspired series published by Premier Press. Comprised of four titles and edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford, these books are designed to provide animators and curious moviegoers with tips and tricks from Hollywood veterans.

This chapter describes how to create appealing and effective poses as well as staging for animated characters. By poses and staging Im referring to the concept of clearly conveying an emotion or idea through the positioning of a character and how that figure is viewed from the perspective of the camera. Its important not to confuse this notion with the form of staging that relates to how the camera moves. Its true that the camera placement will have a significant effect on how the action is perceived. A close-up shot has a different emotional impact than an establishing shot. That concept is extremely important, but its an entire text in itself. This chapter is more concerned with providing sound fundamentals in regard to individual poses and how the character performs the action in relation to the viewer. This is a concept that dates back to the early days of stage performance.

pose v. To adopt a particular physical posture for a photograph or painting, or position somebody or something for this purpose.

[Figure 1] The viewer quickly understands the excited nature of the character.

Animators borrowed from these traditional stage and cinema techniques and began concentrating on stronger presentations of gestures and poses. Clearly defining specific motions and emotions led to stronger audience relationships. Story points were better defined and actions unmistakably presented. This fundamental continues to be an integral part of animated production as audiences continue to sophisticate themselves to moving images; artists must find clever ways to present their ideas.

Presenting Clear Ideas

Im sure everyone has seen a billboard now and again while driving on the freeway. These signs bombard drivers with products and ideas by using a limited amount of imagery and text. Most of the time, they are effective. Viewers gain a strong understanding even from this limited information. These same principles can be applied to the world of animation when you have very short periods of time to convey complicated emotions and actions. Animators must strive to find the simplest and most effective ways to express the ideas of a shot. The following paragraphs provide a framework for that presentation.

Emotional Punctuation

The most important thing to remember when creating a pose is ensuring that the gesture plainly and definitely conveys the emotion of a scene. Emotion is at the core of creating believable characters and one of the primary vehicles for relaying that emotion is the characters physical posture. If used properly, a gesture can carry an immense amount of information. This information is vital to keeping a connection with the audience, and an animator must take full advantage of her poses to best present the story idea at that moment. Because of the sheer volume of poses required in good character animation, it is imperative that an animator break down the scene into its most simple form --the single pose. In essence, take it one pose at a time.

Sean Mullen emphasizes this point during his interview in Chapter 10. His work method relies on capturing the emotion of a scene with a single pose. That single pose dictates how and when a character moves and sets the foundation for the entire shot. The success of his effort is resting on the emotion created in a single frame gesture. (See Figure 1.) By concentrating efforts on one emotion, the exact point of the scene can be clearly emphasized. Many times, this notion is overlooked.

Contrary to what many people expect, a scene doesnt require an extensive number of poses to clearly demonstrate an idea. In fact, many people go to great lengths to jam so many ideas into a shot that the viewer is left confused by the onslaught of too much information. The end result is a jumbled mess of actions and motions that do nothing more than move around the screen. Remember, the animators job is to maintain clarity of emotion by keeping the viewer seeing one, and only one, idea in a shot. Limiting the amount of information presented is a step in the right direction.

[Figure 2] The character on the left is ambiguous in his presentation. The character on the right clearly shows the product being displayed.

Direct the Eye

Image composition can include a number of objects, characters, colors and events. These items combine to create a palette that is both informational and emotional. Although necessary, all these items can be a distraction to the idea an animator is trying to convey. The proper use of a pose can minimize these distractions and point the audience in the right direction.

As I said, clarity is the key to illustrating a point. The audiences attention needs to be directed toward the concept being presented. Imagine a soda commercial. If an actor is going to proudly display the product, hell want the audience to clearly see the label on the can. Any ambiguity would distract the audience and lessen the impact of the advertisement. (See Figure 2.)

By directing the audiences eyes to a specific location, the animator is making a direct comment on what needs to be viewed. The essential story beats are given proper screening time and keep the audience connected with the events that are unfolding. Actions are direct in their staging and contain the necessary accents to make them most effective.

During the production of Episode I, I was assigned a shot that contained the character Sebulba. The shot required that he sabotage another racers vehicle. He slowly crept up to a control device, reached up, and broke the piece from the engine. This moment was necessary for future plot developments and critical that the audience clearly see the action. Creating the proper pose would be necessary to unmistakably sell the action.

The end result was Sebulba directing his posture and appendages toward the important engine part. As he approached the device, I pointed both arms and head toward the lever, and created a C shaped figure with his body. This semicircular composition guided the viewers eye to the area of interest.

i3D04_fig3.jpgi3D05_fig4.jpg[Figures 3 & 4] A simple, silhouetted pose (left). The weakness of the gesture (right) is revealed when the lights are turned on.

Figure 5 shows the newly created pose. The silhouette plainly shows the character motioning toward his wrist. The viewer doesnt gain any additional information by revealing the inner portions of the outlined figure. The animator is relying on a strong body gesture to convey the characters action or emotion.

Most 3D packages have settings that will automatically create a silhouetted figure for you. Oftentimes its accessible within the actual working view port. Other times, it will be necessary to create a quick render to get the results. Regardless of the options available, make every effort to routinely view your work in this mode.

Anatomy of a Pose

Now that the artistic aspects of poses have been discussed, its time to consider the mechanics that are present in a strong pose. Several fundamentals are needed in creating appealing character gestures, and providing the necessary backbone and technical foundation for your characters expressions and actions. When combined with the artistic elements, the result is a character with both appeal and functionality.


The most common mistake Ive seen is the inability to maintain proper balance. Ive witnessed many shots fail to meet their expectations when an animator breaks the balance barrier and places the character in a pose that would not be possible in the physical world. The action or pose breaks the rules of physics and distracts the viewer with sheer defiance of the laws of gravity.

Characters need proper balance from a physical standpoint. This physical state involves anatomy and physics. Animated figures, although make-believe, must maintain some semblance of real-world abilities. Breaking this barrier creates an unwanted separation between audience and character.

Take, for example, the lifting of a leg. I want to place the character in a one-leg standing pose thats going to require that he lift a foot off the ground. Many animators will solve the equation the way shown in Figure 6. They simply pull the leg straight off the ground and feel satisfied with the pose. The result is a character that would immediately fall over.

i3D07_fig6.jpgi3D08_fig7.jpg[Figures 6 & 7] The unbalanced character (left) would be unable to keep this stance. The balanced character (right) is in a more natural state. A center of gravity and B the character is off balance.

The current position of the character ignores gravity. Its impossible to stand this way. I suggest you try putting yourself in this pose; I guarantee you cant do it. The character must alter his mass to compensate for the weight shift. Ill show you how to fix it.

As the character begins to raise the leg, the hips must shift over the standing leg. This redistributes the weight and creates an equal balance along the center of gravity. The character can sustain this pose with ease. (See Figure 7.)

Keep in mind that this concept must be applied throughout the character. The 50% I mentioned included all parts of the body. Its important that you keep an equal distribution across that line regardless of the pose. This will ensure the characters physical appearance is true to the laws of physics and appears natural and possible.


Characters often gesture with multiple appendages. Both arms might rise in triumph from a victory or extend outward to embrace a loved one. They are striving for the same goal and often end up behaving alike. This symmetry can contribute to an unnatural pose, and make the character feel wooden and stiff. A slight adjustment can make all the difference.

Take the example of a character that has raised his arms protesting his innocence. He is about to deliver the line, I didnt do it. Both arms extend from the body, and the elbows move in toward the torso. Figure 8 shows this gesture with both limbs in identical positions.

i3D09_fig8.jpgi3D10_fig9.jpg[Figures 8 & 9] The arms are symmetrical (left) in their raised position. The asymmetrical pose (right) is more appealing.

The pose is stiff and lifeless. Its inconceivable to think that two arms could strike and maintain the exact same pose. By repositioning one of the arms, the gesture becomes much more natural. The characters body has a sense of asymmetry and is more lifelike. (See Figure 9.) Although these examples involve static poses, its absolutely necessary to be conscious of symmetry when moving in and out of a gesture.

Watch for Twinning

When two appendages hit a pose on the exact same frame, its referred to as twinning. Arms, for example, often mirror each others action as they move in and out of a pose. It is highly unlikely that the human body could replicate this amount of symmetry while performing a motion. This movement is abnormal and helps to create an unbelievable character. A minor adjustment can make the flow between poses much more effective.

Offsetting the point when two arms reach an extreme keyframe is crucial. That value could be as small as three or four frames. The difference doesnt sound like much, but will dramatically affect the look of your motion. This small separation takes away the robotic appearance thats often encountered in digital animation.

Lets say a character is cheering at the scoring of a touchdown. He thrusts both arms toward the sky as the player crosses the goal line. Offsetting the arms by a minor amount will remove the twinning aspect. Having the right arm hit at frame 15 and the left at frame 18 will assist in a more natural stopping of the characters movement. (See Figure 10.)

To learn more about posing and staging, character animation, walks, tools of the trade and other topics of interest to animators, check out Inspired 3D Character Animation by Kyle Clark; series edited by Kyle Clark and Michael Ford: Premier Press, 2002. 268 pages with illustrations. ISBN 1-931841-48-9 ($59.99) Read more about all four titles in the Inspired series and check back to VFXWorld frequently to read new excerpts.


Author and series editor Kyle Clark (left) and series editor Mike Ford (right).

Series editor Kyle Clark is a lead animator at Microsoft's Digital Anvil Studios and co-founder of Animation Foundation. He majored in Film, Video and Computer Animation at USC and has since worked on a number of feature, commercial and game projects. He has also taught at various schools including San Francisco Academy of Art College, San Francisco State University, UCLA School of Design and Texas A&M University.

Series editor and author Michael Ford is a senior technical animator at Sony Pictures Imageworks and co-founder of Animation Foundation. A graduate of UCLAs School of Design, he has since worked on numerous feature and commercial projects at ILM, Centropolis FX and Digital Magic. He has lectured at the UCLA School of Design, USC, DeAnza College and San Francisco Academy of Art College.